Mordecai ben Hillel Ha-Kohen

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MORDECAI BEN HILLEL HA-KOHEN (1240?–1298), author and rabbinic authority in Germany. The only biographical details known of him are that he was a descendant of *Eliezer b. Joel ha-Levi, a relative of *Asher b. Jehiel, and a brother-in-law of Meir ha-Kohen, author of the Haggahot Maimoniyyot, that he was an outstanding pupil of *Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg, *Isaac b. Moses (author of Or Zaru'a), and *Pereẓ b. Elijah of Corbeil. He appears to have spent some time in Goslar (Resp. Maharam of Rothenburg, ed. Lemberg, 476), from there moving to Nuremberg, where he died a martyr's death in the *Rindfleisch massacres, together with his wife and five children.

Mordecai's fame rests on the Sefer Mordekhai, always referred to as "the Mordekhai." This gigantic compendium consists of elaborations on talmudic problems in the style of the *tosafot. However, it follows the arrangement of laws used by Isaac *Alfasi, its aim having been to spread the learning of the French and German scholars and of their predecessors by attaching them to the work of Alfasi, which had a wide circulation; but the Mordekhai does not refer at all to the content of Alfasi's book. Over 300 books and authors are cited in the Mordekhai, including whole pages from Or Zaru'a and dozens of responsa of Meir of Rothenburg in full. The absence of any of the writings which Meir of Rothenburg sent to his pupils while he was in prison proves that the book was completed before 1286, the year of Meir's incarceration. On the other hand, it is clear from the many references to "my master, Rabbi Mordecai" that the book was not edited by Mordecai himself but by his sons and pupils. If the Sefer ha-Dinim of Judah ha-Kohen and Sefer ha-Ḥokhmah of Baruch b. Samuel are still known today, it is almost entirely thanks to the Mordekhai. The history of the spread of the Mordekhai and the transmigrations of its many versions in manuscript and in print is one of the most complicated in all of rabbinic literature. Because of the book's tremendous scope, two main compilations of extracts, the "Austrian" and the "Rhenish," were made from it within a few decades, mainly reflecting regional laws and customs, and differing greatly from one another. The Rhenish version – which is the one extant – includes the views of many French and English scholars, and the customs of the German communities. These customs had spread eastward as far as Poland, but were not accepted west of Germany. The Austrian version reflects the minhag of southeastern Europe including the customs of Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Saxony, and Moravia, and mentions many Austrian scholars. This version was in the possession of Israel *Isserlein.

In 1376 Samuel *Schlettstadt edited an abridgment of the Mordekhai (Mordekhai ha-Katan), adding glosses of his own (Haggahot Mordekhai). In print, these appeared independently at the end of the book, but sometimes they were confused with the text. This abridgment was based on the Rhenish version, and when Schlettstadt later obtained a copy of the Austrian version, he added some passages from it. The Halakhot Ketannot in the Mordekhai are also Schlettstadt's work. Many other abridgments have been made, both by copyists and by printers, this activity having begun, in fact, shortly after Mordecai's death. Apart from Schlettstadt's abridgment, there are extant two printed versions of the book (see below) and a larger number of versions in manuscript. Many manuscripts are extant in libraries in many parts of the world, but no two of them are identical, and all of them are different from Mordekhai ha-Gadol (the unabridged Mordekhai), also extant in manuscript, which was too long to be copied in full. In view of this situation, Judah Loew of Prague ruled that the Mordekhai should not be used as the basis for legal decisions. The Mordekhai was first printed together with the first edition of the Talmud (tractates Berakhot and Beẓah, by Soncino, 1483–84). While the amplifications on Berakhot are shorter than those in the regular printed editions, those on Beẓah are much longer. It was also published together with Alfasi's abridgment of the Talmud in Constantinople, 1508–09. The Mordekhai was published separately, and on the whole Talmud, in Riva di Trento, 1559–60, in an edition containing matter not found in the standard edition, which was published later from other manuscripts. Before printing a new edition, printers would generally compare the various editions already previously published, for the purpose of reconciling them, a practice which helped confuse matters even more. Following the ruling of Judah Loew, all passages that were lenient or permissive on points not stated in the Talmud were expunged from the printed editions (but not from the Mss.), causing the accuracy of the text to deteriorate still further.

The Mordekhai exerted a powerful influence in Germany on the manner of arriving at halakhic rulings until the time of Moses *Isserles, mainly through Israel Isserlein, who relied on it considerably in his Terumat ha-Deshen, and Joseph *Colon. The book was also most influential in the world of Sephardi halakhah – which it reached in its abridged form – and Mordecai b. Hillel ha-Kohen is one of the few Ashkenazi authorities cited by Joseph *Caro in his Beit Yosef. Many scholars wrote interpretations, amplifications, glosses, or corrections to the Mordekhai, including: Israel *Bruna, Israel Isserlein, *Joshua Boaz b. Simeon, Moses Isserles (who inserted the page references to the tractates of the Talmud), Menahem of Tiktin (who wrote Ḥiddushei Anshei Shem on it), Isaiah b. Abraham *Horowitz, and Mordecai *Benet. Kiẓẓur Piskei ha-Mordekhai, by Joseph *Ottolengo, which is generally published together with the Mordekhai, also deserves mention. Up to and including the time of Moses Isserles, small groups of Jews would get together for the regular and systematic study of the work. In addition to this book, Mordecai also composed a rhymed composition on the dietary laws (Venice, c. 1550), and a poem on the rules of vocalization. He also wrote a work on the laws pertaining to the Holy Land and the laws of ḥallah ("the priest's share of the dough") published in Z. Bindowitz, Ḥut ha-Meshullash (1940). Five of his piyyutim are extant including the seliḥah Mah Rav Tuvekh, a lament for Abraham the proselyte who died a martyr's death in 1264 at Augsburg.

[Israel Moses Ta-Shma]

Further Information

A study of the many manuscripts of Sefer Mordekhai reveals that there are "families" of manuscripts. Manuscripts belonging to a certain family are based on the same version and use the same linguistic expressions with the same additions as in the printed text of Sefer Mordekhai printed in different editions of the Talmud. The manuscripts of the Mordekhai make it possible to attempt to establish a text of the Mordekhai for the Talmud tractates that will include as many sections of the Mordekhai as possible, namely the text of the book as it is printed and, in addition, different parts not yet published and originating from the different manuscripts.

A. Halperin published a study called The Complete Sefer Mordekhai for Tractate Bava Kamma (1978): Part i, Introduction; Part ii, a critical edition of the Mordekhai for Bava Kamma by Rabbi Samuel Schlettstadt. In addition, the complete Mordekhai for Tractate Beiẓah (edited by Yehoshua Horowitz and Yiẓḥak Kleinman) appeared in the Torat Ḥakhamei Ashkenaz series of the Jerusalem Institute (1983). This edition is based on 18 manuscripts and early printed editions and includes notes, sources and variant readings.

[Yehoshua Horowitz]


S. Cohen, in: Sinai, 9–16 (1942/43–1946/47), passim; I.A. Agus, Teshuvot Ba'alei ha-Tosafot (1954), introd.; Bialer, in: Genazim (1967), 19–45; Urbach, Tosafot, index; Rosenthal, in: Shanah be-Shanah (1967/68), 234; Zulbach, in: jjlg, 3 (1905); 5 (1907); Zunz, Lit Poesie, 364; Germ Jud, 404; Davidson, Oẓar, 4 (1933), 436; E.E. Urbach, Baalei ha-Tosafot, vol.2 (1980), 556–60; A. Halperin, Introduction to The Complete Sefer Mordekhai for tractate Bava Kamma (1978); Y. Horowitz, "The Quality of the Texts of the Mordekhai for Tractates Rosh ha–Shanah, Sukkah and Beiẓah," in: Proceedings of the 8th World Congress of Jewish Studies (1982), 57–62; idem, Introduction to "The Complete Sefer Mordekhai for tractate Beiẓah" (1983), 10–15.